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"Veronika Voss" was the next-to-last film made by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who died June 10, 1982 in Munich of a fatal combination of drugs and alcohol. It tells a story of a German actress, famous in the 1940s, who tried to revive her flagging career with alcohol and drugs, and fell into the hands of a sadistic woman doctor who provided the drugs as a means of controlling rich patients. The film is based on the life of Sybille Schmitz, "the German Garbo," who starred in many glossy postwar West German films before becoming addicted to drugs and killing herself in the late 1950s.
What was Fassbinder trying to tell us in this film? It was made, I understand, during a period when cocaine was making his life unmanageable. He called "Veronika Voss" the third film in his trilogy about the West German "economic miracle" of the 1950s and 1960s; the other two films were "The Marriage of Maria Braun" and "Lola." Never has a stranger trilogy been made about an economic system.
If "Maria Braun" made its heroine into a symbol of Germany pulling itself together after the end of the war, and "Lola" was about the conflict between corruption and duty, "Veronika Voss" seems to be about Germany's lingering fascination with the images of the 1930s, with the carefully cultivated aesthetic of decadence, domination, perversion, and sinister sexuality.
It gives us a heroine who, at one time in her career, stood for the sort of sophisticated, chic sexuality associated with Marlene Dietrich. But by the time we meet Veronika Voss, she can't even pull herself together to do a tiny scene in a movie. She seeks comfort from strangers. She is hopelessly addicted to drugs, and is the captive of a psychiatrist who enjoys having a fallen star around the office.
Fassbinder's visual style is the perfect match for this subject. He shoots in the unusual combination of wide screen and black and white, filling his frame with objects: clothes, jewelry, furniture, paintings, statues, potted palms, kitsch. This is a movie of Veronika Voss's life as Veronika might have pictured it in one of her own nightmares. The elaborate camera moves and the great attention to decor are just right for the performances., which come in two styles: stylized and ordinary. Veronika Voss is elegant even in her degradation, but she is surrounded here by plainer folks like Robert, the sportswriter she picks up in a cafe. There are times during the movie when we can almost see everyday, ordinary postwar Germany picking its way distastefully through the smelly rubble of pre-war decadence.
Is the movie a statement against drug addiction? Not really. Fassbinder never seems to have seen drug addiction in his movies, despite his personal experience with the subject. "Veronika Voss" seems to believe that drug addiction is more the result of Veronika's fall than its cause. We might ask, of course, what alternatives Veronika had. She could have grown gracefully middle aged, increased her range of interests, outgrown her obsession with herself and her beauty. But that would not have interested Fassbinder, or Veronika.
Fassbinder seems to believe Veronika's tragedy was inevitable; that she was doomed to a quest for eternal youth, for praise and adulation and a never-ending party. Drugs were the way she continued the quest long after it had become a self-deception. It was no problem finding people to supply them, and then consume her remaining energy as their payment. Fassbinder's "Veronika Voss" is a bleak, cheerless and sometimes savage addition to his trilogy about the collapse of the West German postwar dream, but did he realize that he himself was one of the victims of his stories? This movie makes you wonder.